POLITICS

National Treasury: Slick, Organised, Polished, And Smelling Of Brillo

It might look like any other government department, but there's no doubt Treasury's a cut above the rest.

23/02/2017 00:27 SAST | Updated 23/02/2017 12:59 SAST
Pieter du Toit.
The entrance to 40 Church Square, the squat, fort-like headquarters of national Treasury.

National Treasury's headquarters on Church Square in Pretoria is a magnificent, squat, fort-like pile, situated between the Palace of Justice and the old Eerste Volksbank (First People's Bank) Building.

Its ramparts reach high above street-level, and small windows with pitch-black wrought-iron burglar bars dot the heavy, uneven stone foundations upon which the edifice is constructed. Standing in front of the main entrance with these defences, resembling a medieval castle's portcullis, one gets a sense of an institution under siege.

Inside the grand old ministerial offices, high atop the battlements, antique balustrades, copper fittings and dark wooden doorframes reinforce the gravity of the work done at 40 Church Square. This isn't a Mickey Mouse government department. Its officials are stern-faced, polite and knowledgeable.

Covering the budget from within Treasury's inner sanctum on Wednesday –- well, in the basement of its inner sanctum –- gives you a glimpse inside the "state within a state", as Treasury's detractors have alluded to. Everything works with the precision of a Richemont luxury timepiece: from the parking access at Treasury's 240 Madiba Street Building, to the security escorting media into 40 Church Square to the staff handing out Finance Minster Pravin Gordhan's budget speech and the heavy bag containing the budget documents.

Everything on time, everything on hand and everybody available.

The media dissecting the embargoed budget in the hours before Gordhan delivered his speech were assisted by an IT team (for connection issues), a communications team (for media queries), a technical team (for questions about the budget details) and catering staff.

A slick, young man managed cyber security, cataloguing 3G cards, dongles and cables –- anything that might be used to communicate with the outside world that could break the strict embargo on the Budget.

A middle-aged Afrikaans official asked the media not to ask any politically related questions to Treasury support staff: "If you ask us political questions, we'll pretend we didn't hear it. We are bureaucrats, not politicians."

The Media went through a rigorous and tight registering and screening process before being allowed access to the budget documents, with Treasury staff slickly assisting the hacks with logistics and information. Any query about expenditure items or the minutiae of tax proposals were quickly answered by a member of the assembled Treasury experts. And often answered again.

Even though the higher reaches of Treasury's tenements -– including, presumably, Gordhan's office -– does look well-kept and smells of Brillo and polish, 40 Church Square remains the head office of a government department.

Fading, framed portraits of the head of state and his deputy, flanked by the departmental head and his second, greets you at the back-entrance.

Walking across the linoleum floor, past old pot plants and desks where damaged tabletops exposes innards of pressed wood, Treasury looks just like any other government department.

But the effective manner in which Budget day was managed, the courteous way in which the media was treated and the transparency and openness with which complex issues were explained, suggests Treasury is anything but like any other government department.